The casual racism that visiting BAME speakers suffer must be tackled

The Covid-enforced pause to in-person visits has been a relief to BAME academics, says Aymen Idris

October 6, 2021
Goldfish staring at black fish in bowl (racism)
Source: iStock

Being invited by another university to give a guest lecture should be a moment of pride for any scholar. But in the UK, many scientists of African ancestry, such as myself, have become increasingly wary of taking up these opportunities to speak to and socialise with other researchers and potential collaborators.

For me, it all started after I published a paper in a prestigious scientific journal in 2005, which generated numerous invitations to speak, both in the UK and further afield. Yet my excitement at the embrace of my science by my peers was continuously marred by the innovative, subtle and discreet ways by which some of them practised casual racism – especially once the alcohol began to flow.

It was blatantly obvious to me that many of my hosts and colleagues possessed – and, on some occasions, were only interested in discussing – outdated attitudes towards race. I was particularly struck by the realisation that some modern-day scientists still – in the most charitable interpretation of their behaviour – enjoy playing devil’s advocate regarding discredited, non-scientific ideas, such as race science and IQ disparities between scientists of African ancestry and others.

I was also shocked that some of these views were held and shared by some non-African members of the BAME community. I used to look at my audiences during my lectures, or at my hosts during the meal afterwards, and wonder: do they really believe that we all belong to the same scientific community?

I understand that what is considered a taboo in your local community can be a social and cultural norm in another country, or even a different region of your own country. But scientists, wherever they are, ought to know better than to peddle discredited prejudices about racial differences. It hurt me then, and it baffles me to this day.

Despite my shock, though, I said nothing. Instead, I started to politely decline all invitations to speak at gatherings that I perceived to be private and intimate. I dedicated more time to research and used any free time to speak at major conferences, where I felt protected by the presence of multicultural, international crowds of delegates.

Repeatedly turning down these offers, however, is not sustainable because speaking at departmental meetings and seminars outside your own institute matters – and not only for establishing collaborations. It boosts your visibility and prestige within your field and establishes contacts and networks that can make it easier to secure grants and publication opportunities.

This is why the curtailment of non-essential travel for scientists during the pandemic has been a relief to me. Since all in-person seminars and conferences have been suspended, I no longer fear the negative impact on my career progression of abstaining from public speaking at small and intimate gatherings. And the sad truth is that I am not alone. Many others facing discrimination – ethnic or otherwise – in science will probably feel the same way.

In the modern era of digital connection and team science, there are perhaps now better ways for junior scientists to connect with wider academic communities than undertaking the isolating trips of the past. Some might consider taking part in large projects that offer the opportunity to engage with international researchers. Others might make use of specialist online hubs; two that I have founded, in 2018 and 2021 respectively, are HubLE, for young musculoskeletal researchers, and Africa in Science (AiS), for researchers on that continent.

But no one should have to rely on such virtual networks. Science as a whole needs to listen and understand why scientists from certain communities embraced the isolation enforced by Covid-19 and fear the resumption of small in-person events.

The fact that white scientists may not even have noticed their BAME colleagues’ enthusiasm for stay-at-home policies only underlines the fact that many academic institutions and societies are ideologically ill-equipped to relate to the experiences of their members from minority groups. But this is not a situation that can be allowed to endure.

Like many scholars from ethnic minorities, I am less inclined to tolerate the status quo than I was before the pandemic. But the only way to make tangible, long-lasting progress is if scientists from all cultures are given the chance to speak out and share their experiences.

That is what I am doing. Maybe reading this article will be a wake-up call for university leaders, prompting them to tackle the race-related problems that have made visits to their institutions and others so difficult. If they don’t, staff of African origin in particular will continue to have to choose between career progression and safety from casual racism.

Aymen Idris is a senior lecturer in pharmacology at the University of Sheffield.

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